February 18, 2010

Biological Food in the Netherlands – Big Presence, but Ambiguous Labels, Cost and Disparities Still Issues

Sarah Rodman, MPH

Sarah Rodman, MPH

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

When I first arrived in Amsterdam, I was thrilled to see that there was a good-sized and well-stocked organic market on the corner of the street I was staying on. I immediately saw that the awareness of and demand for biological (organic) foods was widespread. I saw organic markets littering many neighborhoods in Amsterdam, along with biological options for almost any kind of food offered in regular supermarkets. In many of the restaurants and cafes I visited, there was often an asterix next to the meat on the menu, with “biologische” in the footnote. The only chain fast-food restaurants I saw were in the busiest most tourist-ridden part of the city. However, my initial enthusiasm was a bit blunted by my eventual discovery that the Netherlands seems plagued by some of the same food systems issues as the United States.

German biological lemonade

German biological lemonade popular in the Netherlands

After Amsterdam, I moved on to visit a friend for a week in University town about 30 minutes away by train, Ütrecht. Ütrecht was also littered with biological markets and even clothing stores. I saw the same presence of biological foods in menus, supermarkets, cheese shops and butcher shops. I began to believe I needed to move there.

I went into a couple of cafes that did not advertise themselves as organic, but in fact, had all biological items on the menus. At one such café, the waiter told me that you have to be careful when considering businesses’ and products’ claims of being organic. It is his impression that there is very little enforcement of biological guidelines in the Netherlands for meat production and produce farming, so it is wise to be wary about what you are being sold. The owners of this café had decided to provide food produced in ways they believed in (organically). They know their meat sources and butchers and have visited them multiple times. But because of the lack of credibility in organic advertising, they operate their business without it.

I like the idea of there being such a high saturation of biological presence in the market that no one can possibly avoid being aware of it. But, after that conversation I began to rethink my initially naïve and happy acceptance of all the claims being made. I am always skeptical in the US of such claims, but I must have left my wariness at customs. If those that were genuinely invested in providing sustainably – produced food were abandoning the labels entirely, what stock could I put into those using them? How could I differentiate between the marketing ploys from the genuine?

The ambiguity of organic advertising is not the only thing the Dutch food system has in common with the US’. I spoke to about fifteen Dutch individuals, mostly university students, about their impression of biological food issues in Holland.

The main pattern that emerged in people’s responses was a concern with cost. Most people I spoke to claimed to be very aware of issues surrounding food production in the Netherlands, from antibiotic use in raising hogs, to pesticides and additives. I should note that while Holland has banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in food animal production, they still allow it for prophylactics. But according to a recent study, the Netherlands consumes the most organic pork of any country in Europe. Everyone I spoke to expressed that they eat organically as much as possible, but that cost can be prohibitive. This is an argument I often hear in the United States about roadblocks to eating organically (even from some of the wealthiest people I know). From what I saw, the organic option was a bit pricier in the supermarkets.

I wondered if, like Americans, the Dutch had gotten used to a lifestyle where food was cheap because so many of the costs of producing it were externalized (environmental, health, social).  In the US, the percentage of people’s budgets that can be allotted to food has steadily declined since the 1950s, as other costs of living have risen (transportation, housing). This has left many with no choice but to purchase the cheapest food available, strengthening the vicious cycle of supply and demand for industrially -produced food. From my conversations, it seems that the Netherlands is like the States in that the sensitivity to cost of organic food stems from actual fiscal discomfort for some and from convenience for others. Clearly, though, enough people are willing to shell out the extra cash for there to be a growing supply. As I often do at home, I questioned what the proper price is for good food, anyway.

The woman who rented me my apartment in Amsterdam has been a vegetarian for over a decade and has passed her eating rules onto her four-year-old son. She is also concerned with eating organically as much as possible and has been very happy to see the availability and accessibility of organic food grow hugely in Amsterdam in the past decade. She was clearly up on her food issues and she too remarked that cost was still often the barrier for people who want to eat organic. She pointed out that while organic is available in every supermarket, its presence is not found in smaller grocery stores, where most people (especially lower-income individuals) do their food shopping. This hinted at a parallel pattern of organic food in the United States (most availability and accessibility for the wealthiest and most educated member of society).

While I had been impressed by the demand for and presence of biological foods, I had only seen a few of the most cosmopolitan and educated parts of the country.

Aside from the few fast food restaurants in downtown Amsterdam, the greasiest, least healthy (and some of the most delicious) food I encountered was in “snackbars,” which are small restaurant/ carry-out businesses that are open late, mostly patronized by young people after a night at the coffee shop or pub. These restaurants were all owned by Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, groups of people with whom the Dutch have real tension over jobs and resources. It may be worth investigating the possible association between one of the most socially marginalized groups of people in the Netherlands with some of the least healthy food establishments.

Issues of confusing labels, of prohibitive cost and of disparities revealed themselves to me in my short few weeks in Holland. This muddled my immediate romanticizing of the beautiful country’s food system. But after some thought, I regained a bit of enthusiasm. The unavoidable presence of biological in the places I visited (while perhaps sometimes misleading) means that people are thinking about their food and where it comes from. It is my hope that as more people gain consciousness of these issues, they will build demand more rigorous enforcement of guidelines, more honest labels, restricted use of antibiotics in food animal production, and proper pricing of food whose lifecycle damages people and their environments – and that the supply will soon follow.


  1. Sarah Rodman, Being born in Holland I have some interest in what goes on there.
    After 60 years as an Australian I am impressed with the grit and determination od the Dutch ..there contribution to America’s work ethic is considerable but as you found they are far from perfect and are caught up in the need to produce. I worked for eight years in Papua New Guinea for close on eight years in the field as a government officer.
    where I saw people conducting their lives without all the modern pressures and living off their own land.
    Western visitors who ventured to our outposts would see some of the indigenous officers/staff and, admiring their physique youthfulness, comment that they must be into sports training. Very surprised when you told them that in fact this was a man with a large family and considerably older than their estimate.
    Even public servants would supplement their incomes by growing most of the food they ate and it was this that kept them physically trim and overall healthy. Their cash went towards other things such as clothing, domestic items of basic need.
    A young sister in law visiting remarked on the poverty as she saw it while failing to see that the real wealth was in the surrounding forests, rivers and wild life….and a routine that is rich in culture and occupation at all levels in such cultures…physically and communally.
    It seems difficult to keep the balance of food and population once you introduce some Western ways but leave out others like a fair distribution of the byproducts eg. education, birth control.
    The Greeks on places like Cyprus seem to have maintained their appreciation of the value of their traditional diet…are still close enough to the basics of nature to benefit from that in their health/ heart health in particular.
    In this country people of recent Dutch origin do not fair so well in heart health according to some sources. Too intense perhaps!!
    As the next highest producers of food tonnage after America for many years, food health focus might have strayed somewhat. Economies existed before the West came along to dominate; they were just different. Can you imagine the boss in Western economies going home to grow most of the food the family will be eating?! He / she would not see that as economical of time. Leave it to somebody else with the same attitude and you what you get is unhealthy food production.

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